Not many sides out with Juventus, Milan, Celtic or Barcelona get the chance to visit Old Trafford and sample one of
world football's most prominent arenas. One group of fans to recently get the chance to visit Old Trafford are English Championship side Queens Park Rangers. Old Trafford is a changed lace though now with the club going public meaning the end of Manchester United the club and the birth of Manchester United the brand. Sadly what was once a terrace heaven full of nostalgia, 1970's corduroy flares, denim patched jackets and unwashed scarfs has turned into a soul-less no atmosphere hell hole full of corporate hangers-on and old woman whose only reason for going to Old Trafford is to seek a full-time hug or autograph from Alex Ferguson when really they should be at home with slippers on watching Coronation Street.
The fact is that today's Old Trafford is a shadow of its former self, if only for the nostalgia seekers amongst us. Today many people are threatened with having season tickets confiscated if they unfurl or try and fly a flag on the Stretford End with one of the most famous ends in British football becoming a police state and offer powerful match day stewarding. On top of that there is an undercurrent of unease towards the American owners called the Glazers. The main man in that family has not really been seen at Old Trafford after death threats and bad publicity surrounding his arrival saw the public face of the club move onto the sons of the owner. To be fair the Glazer family seem polite and do not seem to make wide ranging public statements through media channels like the Americans at Liverpool do. However in 2009 Manchester United will be ripe for takeover from either an Eastern European oligarchy or Middle Eastern Arabian sheiks. The massive debts against the club combined with the on-going world economic downturn will see the club move hands and a new chapter will commence.
Forget all this stuff about Manchester United being the richest club in the world; that is a massive PR splurge from the comedian owners, chief executives and MUTV. The club are huge globally but massively in debt and will be for some time. In fact if Platini manages to forge through new rules at UEFA where clubs with massive dents are thrown out, then clubs like Manchester United will be the first to go missing when European competitions take place.
Since 2000 the lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford has been talked about and has become more high profile. In 2000, comments made about sections of the Old Trafford crowd by the then club captain Roy Keane highlighted the problems that home match day at Old Trafford brings. Keane claimed that some fans could not "spell football, never mind understand it" and led to the all-encompassing "prawn sandwich brigade" criticism that reached the back pages of the English tabloids and gave Liverpool fans ammunition. Sir Alex Ferguson the famous manager of Manchester United has also made several comments about the crowd, even going as far as claiming that the atmosphere within Old Trafford could be like a funeral and suggested it was due to the club being too dominant at Old Trafford in the Premier League.
Old Trafford has its good nights all the same but they are thin on the ground and about as common as an early night for George Best. The sheer amount of big European nights at the ground ensure that Old Trafford has its fair share of Saturday night’s rather than Sunday mornings but these number less than the digits on one hand rather than double figures. Even games against Fenerbache, Dynamo Kiev and Anderlecht at Old Trafford can feel like the club and its fans are going through the motions. It’s only when top ranking games in say a semi-final or quarter final arrive at Old Trafford that the ground awakens and an atmosphere, of some sort, awakens. More recently, after Manchester United had a famous 1–0 semi-final win over Barcelona at Old Trafford, thanks to a Paul Scholes goal, Ferguson complimented the support suggesting that fans inside the stadium got his players over the line to the final.
Queens Park Rangers Football Club better known as QPR are one of London's 'unfashionable' club sides and are based in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in West London. Now more known for their efforts in the lower leagues of English football and iconic footballing figures such as Stan Bowles, they have joined the ranks of English sides with rich-men owners, with Formula One tycoons Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore buying up shares alongside steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. Although Mittal is seen, like other owners, as a silent investor into QPR, Ecclestone and Briatore seem more hands on with respect to the strategic functioning of the club. And when the words 'strategic functioning' is mentioned with respect to football you know you have trouble. QPR are not a brand nor are they any sort of big time club and never have been. Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Fulham are clubs with traditions and history of various famous players but QPR are a middle of the road club with a working class fan base. Largely PR coming out of the club has been hot air with little substance all of which has come to nothing. It was claimed during the summer of 2008 that both Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo would sign for the club but neither move ever became a reality or were likely to ever be a reality.
The club owners instead have embarked upon a new manifesto in attempting to build the club into a prospective Premier League side and it has not been been positive. Boardroom interference in team selection is on-going and led to managers coming in and out quicker than a revolving door at Harrods. Seating areas within Loftus Road, the QPR home ground, has been ripped out and replaced with corporate seating and hospitality function areas. It’s all a little bit like attempting to wrap Kit-Kat bars in gold foil in the hope that they will sell better to a more prosperous chocolate loving populous. QPR fans are more Mars bar than Brandy Liqueur but Briatore does not seem to recognise this.
As a consequence the new QPR owners have been accused of trying to turn the club into a 'boutique football' club with pricing ala hotel rooms with 'Gold' and 'Platinum' seats at £50 and £40. Instead of a fish supper or a pie at half-time you get packaged sandwiches, branded coffee and champagne in hospitality. The sandwiches are coffee might sell but the Champagne will be left un-popped. The reports are that corporate seating in Loftus Road has been left empty and unsold packages were the norm with demand not materialising. As a result penny pinching has set in as with all business ethics with ordinary seat prices being raised to grab back the shortfall.
What QPR seem blind to is that the club has its competitors near its location in London such as Chelsea and Fulham both of whom are Premiership clubs. But the efforts to create unique boutique football by the owners have failed and instead of a nouveau riche club they are only a small fry club in a big goldfish bowl with fake greedy owners. It’s a little like Primark selling lambs wool knitwear for £40 a go whilst next door Armani offer the same product at the same price; quite simply QPR cannot compete with Chelsea or even Fulham as clubs. The Premiership may charge more at the gate than QPR but the other two have better players and play better opposition every week. QPR will continue to attract an established and traditional fan base but in raising prices will only drive away many of those who truly love the club by treating them with contempt.
More than that though QPR have been doing their best to alienate away fans prior to visits to Loftus Road. Derby County fans recoiled in horror and were left sitting very uncomfortably when prices were released for the recent game against QPR. When Rams fans were informed that they would be charged £40 for a ticket for the away end at Loftus Road uproar ensued. An appeal to the League and a wide spread negative publicity campaign through media channels saw the prices eventually fixed and pulled back and Derby fans won the day. But it has not stopped the rot setting in as QPR a lower league club, try and become a Premiership one if only off the field.
Listening to QPR fans themselves its clear to see that confidence in Briatore and his circle amongst QPR fans is thin on the ground. The vast majority would rather see the club in the hands of the Indian Mittal who the fans feel has the best interests of the club at heart. Whilst many feel Briatore wants to create a new Arsenal or Chelsea the fans are more realistic stating that it is essentially a London club with a working class fan base. To put QPR in the same bracket as Chelsea and Arsenal is blind ambition; whilst to build a new stadium and demolish Loftus Road and try and build on it would mean attracting new fans and alienating the current loyal bands of fans and that is hard in London. Many QPR fans can see the situation with new fans who come and sit down, clap occasionally and then leave ten minutes early to get to the car and go home. It’s not what traditionalists want.'
Mittal has been seen meeting fans and attending games amongst travelling QPR supporters. Briatore is said to have only contempt for QPR as a club, its real fan base and its traditions. He has been quoted as stating that he has no time for £20 'pay at gate type supporters' and simply aims to turn Loftus Road into one large corporate box. The illusion is still in his mind but in truth it’s not going to work and even if it did Loftus Road could end up like Old Trafford. And that is the next part of our story.
Ever since the Carling Cup draw was made back in September John had been looking forward to the trip. Like thousands of other QPR fans spread across the United Kingdom this was a game on most QPR fans radar. Despite the ridiculous £40 entry price charged to fans the London club still managed to sell over 6,000 tickets to see QPR face the current European Champions.
It is perhaps worth reflecting why so many choose to travel on a wet Tuesday night to Old Trafford. Not too long ago it was a fact that trips to Manchester were done by QPR fans on route to Bury, Oldham Athletic and Stockport County rather than to Old Trafford. John still recalls midweek trips to the JJB Stadium when QPR travelled to see his team play the now mighty Wigan. On this occasion the trip started in Glasgow the morning after going to see a Motorhead concert at the Carling Academy in the city. Fresh from traditional Scottish hospitality from a well-known friend and with the noise of Motorhead and the support act Saxon still ringing in his ears, John boarded the National Express bus at Buchanen Street station for the five hour trip down the motorway to Manchester at 11am. He arrived in Manchester at around 4.30pm and it was quickly to the Southern Oaks pub against a quiet city early Tuesday evening backdrop.
Things were cordial in the bar, a mixture of Manchester United fans and QPR fans sank pre-match beers and talk got onto fan issues surrounding both clubs. One issue and sore point for many Manchester United fans has been the fact that season ticket holders have been automatically charged and had accounts debited for home cup tickets even if they were not planning on travelling and attending the game. This was again the case for a Tuesday night game against QPR. Another means by which Manchester United show contempt for their fans is that when money is automatically debited from fans accounts any default from the fans account leads to threats from the club and possibly being thrown off season ticket lists and ultimately blacklisted. So in actual fact what United are saying to fans is following Manchester United costs you when you have a season ticket. Loyalty equates to rip off terms and conditions and 'add ons'. If you have no money to pay us we will cut you off. The club is operating like energy companies in the United Kingdom are operating with utter contempt for the paying customer. Just as no one wants to freeze at home in winter, opt-in or opt out cup ticket schemes are not offered and fans have little say in changing things. Big business holds forte, of course everyone has a choice and that is why many choose to follow FC United of Manchester.
John set off for Old Trafford via the local tram network from Mosley Street disembarking a few stops later for the walk past Old Trafford cricket ground and onto Matt Busby Way. Relations between fans outside the ground were cordial and both Manchester United fans and QPR fans mixed easily both outside the ground and in the giant Old Trafford merchandise store.
It is only when you are in Old Trafford that it really hits you what a soul-less place it is. Blue and white hooped fans climbed hundreds of flights of stairs to the upper East Stand inside a caged creation which looks like a building site on the way up.
On the field from start to finish, despite a defensive and unambitious performance from the team, the QPR fans sing loud and proud. Even the eventual 1-0 defeat to a Carlos Tevez penalty left QPR fans singing up to the final whistle. The thing is being at Old Trafford inspires visiting supporters, not because of the rivalry on the terraces, more that the Manchester United fans create no atmosphere and you are determined to shown them up for what they are and how proud you as a set of fans are.
The problem with Manchester United like lots of clubs in the English Premiership is that they introduce 'new fans.' These people are glory hunters, hangers on and basically sit down and shut up people. They don't sing and even when a song is attempted they don't know the words and merely clap on the odd occasion. It is totally different at away games where the hard core surfaces and away Manchester United fixtures often mean that you do not see groups of clueless Chinese people with Manchester United store bags being escorted by someone in a blazer to seats with a £5 glossy programme in hand. Five guys with turbans from a Chorley Indian Restaurant are rarely seen at United away games but they dominate at Old Trafford. You also do not see Mums with their kids and friends at many Manchester United away games. It’s not being racist or sexist just stating plain facts that are a painful truth to many modern day long standing Man United fans that yearn for a return to glory days when Old Trafford was a true football ground.
Old Trafford is a very impressive arena and what you would expect of a club with its financial backing but the problem is that the basics are all wrong. The scary thing is when other club boardrooms and greedy owners use them as a benchmark for what they want to achieve. It is all very well having a beautiful stadium but what is the point if there is no atmosphere amongst home fans. Equally getting food and drink proves to be almost impossible within Old Trafford. It’s all branded but of doubtful quality. Getting a beer is almost impossible with massive queues and many bar staff are incapable of pouring a bottle of Budweiser into a plastic glass. Many pints are poured in a hurry and ended up looking like an ice cream and many fans get so fed they have enough and help pour the pints themselves.
Most fans are not in seats when the teams are announced either pre-match or just after half time with MUTV being the fans eye rather than any player pitch warm ups. When away fans get to their seats overlooking the pitch it is easy to see why teams struggle, the pitch is huge and the minutes silence observed by all in respect of Armistice Day is adhered to for one minute by QPR fans but for the entire ninety by Manchester United fans.
John felt that for the first 30 minutes of the game that Manchester United battered QPR with all possession in the hands of men in red. The home side stroked the ball around at will and it looked like the Champions would rack up a cricket score. For the neutral or the one game a season Manchester United fan (and there are a lot of them) it was becoming an abysmal game to watch as Rangers just looked to hold on but in the away end they were having a great time and with the first meaningful effort on goal QPR almost scored. When the final whistle came Old Trafford was almost empty but QPR fans remained and cheered the fans off.
As John waited in the rain for a train to take him and the fans back into town it was hard not to be proud of the teams’ efforts. He thought of walking the forty minutes back to the city centre but instead chose the ten minute tram journey and with it got the last few songs of the night out of the system. Yes, they had been outplayed for much of the game but the London club had come so close to taking the champions of Europe to extra time and who knows what could have happened then.
Overall it was a great night to be a visiting supporter and obviously Manchester United are never off television and you hear rumours that their fans are crap. But is only when you get into Old Trafford that you realise how bad it is with not a murmur or single song from home fans despite 62,000 being in attendance. For Manchester United fans the moral of the story is that they would be better off at home and watching the team on Sky television as there is more atmosphere in the front room.
For John trips to QPR games are never a tedious excursion as you are always guaranteed a sing song. And, Briatore or not, long may it continue for ordinary QPR fans.